Friday, December 22, 2006

From an article in the New York Times about yet another bookstore closing:

There are currently about 2,500 independent bookstores in the United States, not counting stores that deal only in used books, said Meg Smith, a spokeswoman for the American Booksellers Association. In 1993 the number stood at about 4,700.

At this rate, which I actually suspect is still accelerating, the number of independent bookstores in another 14 years will be well below 1,000, maybe even less than half that.

Now let’s ask the next question. How many of these bookstores have a decent poetry section? And what do I mean by decent? That’s one of those questions like defining obscenity – you know it when you see it – but I think it tends to have a few obvious characteristics:

It’s not the furthest most back corner of the store.

It’s more than a single section of one book case.

Most importantly, a majority of the books are from small presses. University presses, by any definition, are not small presses.¹

And a sizeable majority of the books should be by living authors as well.

Beyond that, I think it becomes a question of taste, of which books as much as the mere presence of them.

So just how many of the 2,500 independent bookstores in the United States qualify as having a decent poetry section? Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee most obviously. It may be the only bookstore in the country that completely meets those four simple criteria.

City Lights in San Francisco certainly has a large selection, and it’s conceivable (tho I’d have to double check) that it fits the small press/living author criteria as well. But one could easily argue that the “poetry room” up the back stairwell – it used to be a storage area, I think – is about as far off the beaten path in that venue as you could find. I’ve never seen anyone up there, whenever I’ve been in the place, who had wandered into the poetry section by accident. Which pretty much kills the serendipity/seduction element of poetry, which is supposed to be one of the major arguments for an independent bookstore, rather than just buying your books from Amazon on the web.

I’m less certain that Open Books in Seattle fits the small press definition, tho it’s possible – it is one of the few bookstores in the country with a total dedication to poetry – and I haven’t been in Grolier’s in decades. Modern Times in San Francisco puts poetry reasonably up front, and always has a decent portion of small press materials, but it doesn’t have a lot of books, and it reflects the problem of what happens when you don’t have a lot – you become totally dependent on the interests of a single book buyer and his or her take on verse. That may have been pretty good at a store like Pegasus in Berkeley back in the day when Steve Benson ran the store, but people like Steve are as rare as good bookstores. I know that Bridge Street in DC does a brisk online/mail order business in contemporary poetry – strictly because Rod Smith is the book-keeper there – but I don’t know how much of this is available to walk-in traffic. Out here in the boonies west of Philadelphia, the Chester County Book Company is a large independent – equal in square footage to a Borders or B&N, and that’s not counting the Magnolia Café or the accompanying record store – with a sizeable selection of poetry, not tucked way in back next to the maps. But the poetry section focuses almost entirely on the trades & university presses. Which is fine if I’m looking for Elizabeth Bishop, but not if I’m looking for Elizabeth Willis. Actually, the Chester County Book Company once celebrated March as “National Poetry Month” and, when I asked why, the manager said bluntly, “No one will notice.”

So the only other store I can think of right now that comes close to fitting my definition of having a decent poetry section might be Moe’s in Berkeley, where it’s right in the center of the main floor, has a lot of small press materials & a focus on living authors. Andrew Schelling set that arrangement up originally, and tho he has long since departed they haven’t screwed it up since. You can even look up stock online. Pretty close to a miracle if you ask me.

I’m sure – or at least I hope – that I’ll get a lot of comments today from folks about other bookstores that fit my four criteria. But I’m not going to hold my breath.

I used to feel that authors who put links to Amazon on their websites for their own books were being somewhat traitorous to independent bookstores. After all, if poetry distribution were up to Amazon & the two big chains, we’d all be reading Garrison Keillor anthologies or swooning at the latest translation of Rilke. But the question really is which independent bookstores. I can’t direct readers to my books at Modern Times because it won’t have them. Woodland Pattern doesn’t sell books online & Open Books does so only on a token basis. Indeed, tho it has a lively enough website, targeted mostly at events, exhibitions and fundraising, I could only find one image on the web of the outside of Woodland Pattern at all, on Bob Arnold’s website, which I’ve put up at the top of this note. That’s Cid Corman on the left.

So my links for my own books go first to the publisher if it has any kind of decent page for the item, and, if not, then to SPD. I’m always happy to support independent bookstores. But, frankly, if they can’t meet those four simple criteria, supporting independents bookstores feels pretty hollow. If they were all to disappear, we would have to get over any lingering delusion that poetry and “the book industry” have anything other than an incidental relationship with one another. And that might even be healthy.


¹ Think about it. There are at least 4,000 books of poetry now being published each year in the U.S. Of those, maybe 100 are published by trade presses. Some of these are collected editions by “crossover” authors like Allen Ginsberg, but most are no different from any other small press scene. Maybe 300 more titles are published by university presses. That means that, at minimum, seven out of every eight books of poetry comes from a small press.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sometimes the best things come in small, even mysterious packages. The envelope at first looked like a Christmas card. That’s what my wife and I both thought it was. Instead of a return address, tho, there is only the word, printed on the envelope, all in bold caps: VIGILANCE. The cancellation over the stamp read Los Angeles, from where presumably the envelope was sent. On the front, this little hand-sewn book reads Rob Halpern Disaster Suite. On the back is the word “AÏTHAWAYAN,” a term that shows up on Google exactly zero times (this will be its first appearance on the web), over what appears to be a logo for something like a secret society, beneath which is the phrase “VIGILANCE SOCIETY” over type in at least three different scripts, none from languages I read, and, at the very bottom, “1917.”

What I know about Rob Halpern is roughly zero. He had a book published by Krupskaya a couple of years ago which received this review in Jacket, but is still sitting, with several hundred other volumes, in my “to be read” bookcase upstairs. He read at some point at Moe’s, where the fuzzy photo above was shot. The confluence of Moe’s, Krupskaya and blurbs for Rumored Place from Bob Glück, Camille Roy & Taylor Brady suggests that he lives somewhere in the Bay Area. A quick check of Google Desktop and I find that he & I are both on the same mailing list for a reading series in Baltimore. From his email address, I deduce that he most likely writes on a Mac, the PC for technophobes. kari edwards ran this excerpt from Music for Porn in Galatea Resurrects, the largest sample of his writing I can find online. And Noah Eli Gordon, Catherine Taylor & Stephen Cope all listed Rumored Place in Steve Evan’s Attention Span 2006. Only seven books were mentioned more times.

I can see why. This is a gorgeous little work, hand-sewn on lush paper, the cover with a deckled edge at the bottom, as perfect a volume as you can imagine given that the text inside, from cover to cover, is just 38 lines long. I could, were I the perverse type, print the entire book right here. But I’ll restrain myself – I want you to have to figure out where to get this book & then to do so. But here is a single page’s worth – two of the work’s 12 tercets, plus one of its two single lines that I think of as floaters. At the head of the page is a large period, a section divider as I read it. And there is one at the head of the following page as well.

Then his voice just petered-out becoming
Strands of pale blue smoke he was gaunt
As an old crane and just as wild as what

I’d be anything to wind you back around
Reacquaint ourselves with lost sensation
Invent a world to save us from the world

Just feel this –––– damaged roadside fridge

The line is clearly neither New American in the “imitates the breathing patterns of spoken English” sense nor the deadened drumbeat of traditional meter. Earlier we have seen “tho” and, in italics, “phynance,” suggesting an almost Poundian sensibility at play. But the way statements begin he was gaunt midline suggests a very different ear at work altogether.

I would hesitate to say that there is imagery at work, at least no more than is visible in the lines above, tho what there is of it calls to mind, more than once, the devastating hurricanes of ’05 (there are two visual analogs to the word crane above, both of which apply here). The sense of being constructed, almost hammered together, is reinforced by using the four-en-dash system here. The one in the section above is the eighth in the book.

What makes all this work, of course, is how the section builds up to the concreteness of its final phrase, one of those absolute moments of identification where you know exactly what the author is implying by this image, tho never before have you ever read these words precisely together before: damaged roadside fridge. Tho Halpern’s aesthetic feels quite different, if I can venture so broad a judgment based on less than 40 lines, his sense of concision here reminds me of the best of Joseph Massey & Graham Foust, our contemporary masters of minimalism. There is no waste anywhere.

This makes for a powerful little book, every bit as sad & sardonic as its epigram:

No ‘force of nature’ did this.
Unauthorized report

I want to argue that Disaster Suite is a must-have publication. But unless author or publisher send me contact data¹, the gulf between must-have and have may just remain absolute.


¹ I won’t use his email address from that list without Halpern’s okay.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Perhaps this is a question for Gary Sullivan, someone who knows in some depth the world of the graphic novel &, behind it, the several generations now of comic book artists since The Yellow Kid who have contributed to popular culture. While I was a reasonably serious consumer of comics as a kid – Leslie Scalapino & I were both dedicated fans of the Classic Comics series, which did more for education than, say, the No Child Left Behind act – I can’t say that I’ve paid that much attention later in life. Yet with Pulitzer-Prize winning Art Spiegelman having been all but formally anointed the official graphic novelist of the New Yorker & more than a few summer movies each year deriving from the genre – the last one I saw was V for Vendetta, moderately entertaining as yet another vehicle for the curious acting career of Hugo Weaving, but American Splendor a couple of years back was in fact delightful – I bit when one of my sons made the pitch to me that I seriously needed to read Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons, which won a Hugo and, as it notes on the bright yellow cover, was once listed as “one of Time Magazine’s 100 best novels.” To which I can only reply: consider the source.

There is no question that Watchman is important historically, simply because it established the graphic novel as genre, and that it clearly wanted to be taken seriously from day one. Moore’s critical elevation, unlike, say, the French obsession with Jerry Lewis awhile back, is not the consequence of too much red wine in the diet. The first person to take Alan Moore that seriously was Alan Moore.

Moore, like Harvey Pekar of American Splendor, writes the comic, leaving the artwork to others in this supremely visual medium. Which leaves me asking, What is writing in this context? Where does it end? Not to mention, What are its values? How can we tell if it is “any good”? Etc. Etc. Etc. At least Pekar and his partner Joyce Brabner were given credit for writing the original comics on which American Splendor was based. The credits for V for Vendetta mention only the Wachowski brothers for the screenplay, tho the original comic was done by, who else, Alan Moore.¹ League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, another Moore venture to reach the screen, does credit him, as did the Johnny Depp venture, From Hell. Watchmen is scheduled to be done as film in 2008, Zack Snyder (the 2005 remake of Dawn of the Dead is his big credit to date, tho he is completing yet another film based on a graphic novel, 300, which will appear next summer).

At one level, Moore writes the general directions of the plot, plus the dialog. For 11 of the 12 comics in which Watchmen first appeared, there was also a short section, mostly four pages, of relatively “pure text,” presented for example as excerpts from memoirs, newspaper accounts or a gushing interview, but the rest looks pretty much as what you would expect from a comic – pictures with word balloons. But we also get running interior monologs, especially from Rorschach, the somewhat faceless character in front in the group portrait above. There is also, especially in the early chapters, a comic within the comic, foreshadowing the outcome of the larger series with especially grim humor. Finally, Moore has a reputation from doing more than giving general instructions to an artist. In a sidebar to its 2003 profile, “How Alan Moore Transformed American Comics,” Slate (ignoring the obvious detail that Moore is not American, but British) printed Moore’s “instructions” for a single frame (on a page containing six such frames) of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:

Now we close in a little more. All we can see of Quatermain now is a sliver of his profile over to the left of the panel, looking away from us with widening eyes and an expression of dawning mute shock towards the background, across the other side of the counter. To the right of the middleground, we can see the Si Fan guy looking angry and agitated as he waves the half-melted brush under Shen Yan's nose. We can't see much of Shen Yan, since he is nearly off the right of the panel here, but what we can see of him looks abashed and apologetic. More to the left centre of the middleground, the door behind the counter has now swung open even wider. Looking through it we see a terrible, bizarre, and at first confusing scene. Sitting on an ornate stool with his back to us, wearing a long and magnificent looking robe and a mandarin's pillbox hat, his pig tail hanging down the back, we see a rear view of our devil doctor. In his right hand he holds up a paintbrush. The tip of it, thick with paint, is smouldering. Standing on the floor to our right of the seated doctor we see a kind of raised pot or brazier. Smouldering in it is some sort of thick and caustic liquid. The doctor pauses with his brush in hand as if he were an artist considering his next stroke. In the background beyond the seated doctor, hanging with his wrists bound together and attached to a beam above his head, we see a terrified and agonized looking Chinese man who is stripped to the waist and facing us over the top of the doctor's head, which is turned away from us. There is a gag in the man's mouth, so that he cannot scream. His black hair is plastered to his forehead with sweat, and sweat stands out in beads on his brow. This is Ho Ling, a minor opium trader of Limehouse mentioned in Thomas Burke's "London Nights" if you're even remotely interested. He is quite a big man, maybe running slightly to flab. Painted in a vertical row down the middle of his naked chest are a number of Chinese characters (again, I'll have to wait until I've consulted Steve Moore before I can tell you what they actually are). All of these characters are smoking and smouldering. They are painted onto the man's chest in some sort of terrible acidic, caustic goo that the devil doctor is using instead of paint. Over to the right, the Si Fan guy and Shen Yan continue their Chinese conversation.

If the tale itself in Watchmen reads like a storyboard for a film, the instructions to the artist from this other project come closer to a 19th century novel. But as the casual, off-hand tone (“if you’re interested”) of these instructions suggests, Moore’s focus here isn’t on literary style, nor even in laying out all of the details, tho one senses, both from glimpses into his process as well as the values expressed through his characters, that Moore personally is quite the control freak.

No, Moore is interested in ideas, big ideas, large enough to be clunky in the way, say, that a philosopher writing a novel might be clunky. The ultimate question of Watchman is just how much is permitted “for the greater good.” It’s an interesting question, given the tens of thousands our nation has caused to die of late in Iraq in the name of “democratization.” If you could end world conflict through a single terrifying act – taking out half the population in Manhattan in the process – would the deaths of millions be a “fair price to pay?”

Particularly spooky, given that Watchmen was first published in 1986-87, is not just that it envisions all this occurring with an act of terror in Manhattan (and with a pretty direct connection to Afghanistan, no less), but that – just like George, Rummy, Cheney & Wolfie – the volume ends with no vision at all as to what happens next? As in, what happens when it turns out that old habits come back and the unifying moment of pacification devolves back into the same ol’ same ol’?

The arguments one wants to make here – for example, that there is no voice anywhere in the novel for a democratic (small d) perspective – are of the order one sometimes one wants to make after seeing, say, a Philip K. Dick novella turned into a movie – think of Total Recall, whose political ideas director Paul Verhoeven once suggested were there just to make the film intellectually crunchier. Stylistically, Moore makes a modest effort at differentiating the voices of his characters – Rorschach speaks in fragments, Ozymandias is formal and condescending, the second Nite Owl stammers a lot, Laurie, the second Silk Spectre, shows some of the same rough edges her carny-dialect mother, Sally Jupiter (the first Silk Spectre) demonstrates. But much of the rest of the style, regardless of how thoroughly specified to graphic artist David Gibbons Moore may have been, largely reflects Gibbons own drawing & the coloring of John Higgins.

So Watchman & quite a few other graphic novels want to be taken seriously, but end up as fodder for B-movies while nobody suggests making films out of the far more serious novels of David Markson, Paul Auster, Carole Maso or Gilbert Sorrentino, or even a best-seller like Don DeLillo’s Underworld. To what degree are graphic novels storyboards for film projects, and to what degree not? And where, precisely, is the writing?


¹ This may have been Moore’s own doing. The film’s website credits the script as being “Based on the Graphic Novel Illustrated by David Lloyd.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Project Row Houses:
community as art,
art as community


Heck of a job, Gracie!

Grace Shulman,
who made The Nation,
America’s oldest progressive journal,
a hotbed of neocon poetics
& the home room
of the School of Quietude,
has left her position
as poetry editor there
after 34 years

John Palattella
will replace her


The Nation
on Hart Crane’s
The Bridge
(subscription required)


In addition to
the Electronic Poetry Center,
& the British Electronic Poetry Center
as centers for gathering
links & data
about the poets of a given nation,
there is also the
Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library


The supermarket in California
where Allen Ginsberg
once saw Walt Whitman
& penned
”A Supermarket in California”
will become the site
of a supermarket
once again,

complete with
“Two Buck Chuck”


The Crystal text
on language


Making the white space
in the language


Stopping violence
through grammar


Not pleased
Jacques Roubaud


American Oulipo?


The best
(of many good)
to my note yesterday
is this item
from the MailBucket
but it’s truncated
& I have no idea
who wrote it!


Orhan Pamuk’s
Nobel lecture


A tale by
Nadine Gordimer


“and, now, the wizened poet


The Washington Times
Walter Benjamin
Charles Baudelaire
with Lemony Snicket jokes!)


“fifteen years after the death
of Earle Birney
in 1995 …”

Canadian math
put to the test


Reading Rushdie
in Kashmir


Alice Walker


A contemporary Indonesian poet
is translated into English


Review of a grim bio
of William Burroughs, Jr.


Doctor Dickens


Carol Gilligan
goes to


is a strange little web comic
that has been retelling
Midsummer Night’s Dream
for some time now


Op-Art pioneer
Henry Pearson
has died


George Lakoff
on the
November elections

Monday, December 18, 2006

I’ve been reading The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan for what must be the sixth or seventh time. Not only does reading this series every few years never get old, my experience is that, for me at least, it has never been the same book twice. Reading it now in the sumptuous UC Press edition of Berrigan’s Collected Poems, I am struck with the air & light & infinite good humor that is at the heart of these poems. I’m particularly taken with the first two qualities, reinforced as they are by the large fields of white space the 6-by-8 UC format extends to the text. I agree with Alice Notley’s assertion in her introduction to the Collected that “The Sonnets, in fact, could reflect no other setting than” Manhattan, although “air & light” are not qualities I associate with that densely populated island. They’re functions here more of Berrigan’s own personality, which can grin very wide & be fairly barbed all at once:


I like to beat people up
absence of passion, principles, love. She murmurs
What just popped into my eye was a fiend’s umbrella
and if you should come and pinch me now
as I go out for coffee
… as I was saying winter of 18 lumps
Days produce life locations to banish 7 up
Nomads, my babies, where are you? Life’s
My dream which is gunfire in my poem
Orange cavities of dreams stir inside “The Poems”
Whatever is going to happen is already happening
Some people prefer “the interior monologue”
I like to beat people up

Ellipsis in the original, as they say. If there was a better sonnet in the 20th century, more complex & subtle, more full of human emotion or life, more well crafted, it’s somewhere else in this same sequence, but it’s of course always open to debate.

There are 79 poems gathered into this particular edition of The Sonnets, a few from as early as 1961, the bulk from 1963. That’s 13 more than appeared in the first two editions, but still nine less than Berrigan actually wrote. Given that he used cut-up or splicing techniques, some of them in such a way that you can’t miss the device – the same lines pop up over and over – and that some of the source material was his own very first “not-so-good” (to use Notley’s own judgment here) poems, I’ve wondered – during maybe three of my read-throughs – if a devoted scholar could reconstruct the “uncut” poems, the translations from Rimbaud, the miscellaneous additions that, in fact, make these so much more than verbal collages.

The very first work in The Collected Poems, The Sonnets is in some ways the most radical poetry Berrigan would ever write. Notley calls it, rightly, “Ted’s most famous book.” It is probably the work through which more poets have learned the core strategies of abstraction in language – it doesn’t have to be “non-referential;” a line, a phrase can go in one direction, the next one along an altogether different path; the whole itself will pull together disparate elements to construct “a voice,” etc. – than any other single text.

There was, in the late 1960s & throughout much of the 1970s, some dispute among younger poets as to who might have been the actual source for such procedures in poetry. The core of The Sonnets was constructed in 1963, one year after John Ashbery published “Europe,” the work of his that most clearly “predicts” the poetry of Berrigan (and not just The Sonnets), one year earlier in The Tennis Court Oath. William Burroughs, in his 1965 Paris Review interview with Conrad Knickerbocker (which I’ve also been rereading this week), assigns credit to Brion Gysin, but does so in a way that is carefully hedged:

A friend, Brion Gysin, an American poet and painter, who has lived in Europe for thirty years, was, as far as I know, the first to create cut-ups. His cut-up poem, “Minutes to Go,” was broadcast by the BBC and later published in a pamphlet. I was in Paris in the summer of 1960; this was after the publication there of Naked Lunch. I became interested in the possibilities of this technique, and I began experimenting myself. Of course, when you think of it, The Waste Land was the first great cut-up collage, and Tristan Tzara had done a bit along the same lines. Dos Passos used the same idea in “The Camera Eye” sequences in U.S.A. I felt I had been working toward the same goal; thus it was a major revelation to me when I actually saw it being done.

The argument thus goes: Gysin did it first, tho maybe there were others, and in any event there are antecedents dating back to the high modernists, so does it really matter? What counts is that Gysin blew my mind. Burroughs makes a similar claim at the start of his essay, “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin:”

At a surrealist rally in the 1920s Tristan Tzara the man from nowhere proposed to create a poem on the spot by pulling words out of a hat. A riot ensued wrecked the theater. André Breton expelled Tristan Tzara from the movement and grounded the cut-ups on the Freudian couch.

In the summer of 1959 Brion Gysin painter and writer cut newspaper articles into sections and rearranged the sections at random. Minutes to Go resulted from this initial cut-up experiment. Minutes to Go contains unedited unchanged cut ups emerging as quite coherent and meaningful prose. The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passers by and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut-up method was made explicit  (all writing is in fact cut ups. I will return to this point
) had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity. You can not will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.

The Wikipedia article on cut-up techniques largely replicates the Burroughsian view. The “as far as I know” qualification of the interview, however, suggests that, even by 1965, Burroughs had begun to hear of the cut-ups and chance techniques of others, such as the work being done in Britain by Bob Cobbing. Robert Sheppard, in “Bob Cobbing and Concrete Poetry,” invokes Burroughs in a somewhat deprecating manner:

Cut up, an analogous technique used, more occasionally than supposed, by William Burroughs, himself British-based for a while in the 1960s, was practised by Cobbing as far back as the 1950s. The procedural and permutational works of the Oulipo movement, founded in 1960, and still active, suggests another relationship, one seen in Cobbing’s sideswipe at the inane figurative play of much contemporary British poetry when he generates lines such as ‘rock ’n roll makes me feel like roly-poly / a little lechery makes me feel like spotted dick’ from Liz Lochhead’s ‘a good fuck makes me feel like custard’.

Jackson Mac Low, forever attentive to documenting his forays into new territory, notes in Representative Works: 1938-1985, that his initial two “biblical poems” were “the first works I composed by means of chance operations (30 Dec. 19541 Jan. 1955).” Mac Low’s texts differ from, say, The Sonnets or even Burroughs’ cut-up fiction in that they might not have been recognized even as literature when they were first composed. The opening lines of “!11.6.7!4.,a biblical poem,” are:

In /_____/ /_____/ wherein the /_____//_____/
/_____//_____/ eat lest they /_____/ and taken /_____//_____/ the

A text that appears to predict Armand Schwerner’s later The Tablets.

Earlier even than Mac Low, however, is Kenneth Koch’s When the Sun Tries to Go On, written originally in 1953. Like Berrigan’s The Sonnets a decade later, one could argue that The Sun is Koch’s most radical, even his best work. However, because The Sun didn’t come out in book form until Black Sparrow brought it out with a Larry Rivers cover in 1969¹, long after Koch’s role as the straight clown amid the gay New York School males had been cemented in the imagination of readers, it had relatively little impact. But how else might Koch have composed:

Bong! went the faery blotters; Ding Dong! the

Country of Easter! shore! each toes

The marriage-bin, shouts of “Conch!” “Ruthie” “Lurks

Behind the ‘pea’ is basement’s Illinois

Obtuse radio-lithograms!” “Coptic!” and “Weak Beddoes

Less-us-the- shirt!” Ran behind me-Vishnu, all

Summer. Closet of how it seems! O bare necks

In October, closest apparent “film star” of the

Buffalo. Peter of Carolina’s neatest snow-

Pier condescension. O haughty chapter how

Clear was as apparent cruelty, bonnet,

List, tackles the lace. Hump chariots the summer

Either desires. Ether, so tall

As ice, sees her cuckoo hooves at desire

Margin. Amour dodo cranberries. There

”Art,” “blamelessly,” cashes, D’s, weds hat’s

HEADS! Joyous midnights, different clams!

Oh the word “flotation”’s cosined beaver rotation beneath

The “seelvery” dog-freight cars, mammoth

Stomach-quiz-raspberries we parent

Cuckoo Mary coast-disinterest verst of “cheese” diversed

Flags of the “comma stare” rewhipped

Georgia of teaching cash registers to “hat” side

Of pale “plates,” the bitter “nurse” soothing “ha”-green “stangs” forward!

Clearly Koch is using more than just cut-up materials – his ear forwards the play along in several places – there is even the alphabet (”Art,” “blamelessly,” cashes, D’s). But if Koch is being less systematic than, say, Mac Low, I think it’s impossible to imagine just writing this, say, as it came to him. That really doesn’t become possible, so far as I can tell, until sometime in the early 1970s, most probably in the work of Clark Coolidge, specifically after he dropped the idea of the long poem he’d embarked on after Polaroid and The Maintains, works that equally problematize normative syntactic integration into units of meaning, but do so using systems throughout. Look, say, at Quartz Hearts instead.

So either Koch is 20 years ahead of everyone, but then does nothing with this discovery, a scenario that makes no sense to me, or more likely he is just ahead of Mac Low, Cobbing, Gysin & Burroughs, this same disrupting methodology getting invented repeatedly over the course of one decade.

Another way one might look at all this is in terms of proprietary anxiety, the cut-up as intellectual turf. Here it seems that you have Burroughs at one extreme – it’s not really his move, but Gysin’s, but you Burroughs promoting it from that point forward – and Mac Low clearly is interested as well, tho taking a much wider view if you look at the whole of his career (he’s a veritable engine of different ways of disrupting the ego in the process of writing), while at the other extreme you have Koch, Berrigan & Ashbery, commenting very little if at all on their work in this vein, doing one major piece, then moving on to other work. Cobbing & Gysin work on a third level, people who didn’t go around making major formal claims, but whom others chose to single out as inventors of this exact device.

Ultimately, it’s always the same move – get away from the continuity of syntax & tale & suddenly the reader is plunged into the presentness of what is in front of them. It’s always present, always demanding to be negotiated, interpreted & never getting easier even if you can. Individually, the works that rise out of this breakdown in the narrative chain are all quite different – Berrigan’s “I like to beat people up” isn’t a line we would associate with Ashbery & it’s a lot cheerier than a number of similar statements that occur in Burroughs. But a lot more important than figuring out just who should get credit for cutting up & folding in is fathoming just why this move at this exact moment in history.


¹ Having appeared in a format that telescoped all 104 stanzas down to just 19 pages in Alfred Leslie’s 1960 one-shot, Hasty Papers.